We should have read the one with the beautiful, disturbing pictures.
My son has absorbed social distancing, and made up some of his own rules. Instead of kissing goodnight, he gives four and a half blown kisses; the half he does by turning his palm horizontal, as though he is silencing himself. When I sneak a kiss on his cheek he squeals “not that type” and shoos me. It is funny and terrifying and sad. I don’t want revenge, but I want out of the cistern.
In Beardsley’s final plate, he writes a line from the actual play, “J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan, J’ai baisé ta bouche.”
Salome floats in the air, maybe like a terrifying witch, maybe like an elated lover. Iokanaan’s head is connected to the ground by a plume that either rises from the lily beneath him or pours from the severed head. The black and white is no help with these distinctions between the gorey and beautiful, death and life.
About Salome as source text for Beardsley’s mischievous and aloof drawings, a contemporary Richard Ross writes, “Never was there a more suitable material for that odd tangent art in which there are no tactile values.” All illustrations for text are tangents so some degree, I think. Yet here, image wanders particularly far from plot. For Salome, though, Ross is right—illustrator and writer both dispense with value distinction: tactile, tonal, moral.
One of the uncomfortable truths about social distancing is the amount some of us relish it, even in the midst of so much suffering. It is an opportunity for so many small indulgences. For every social interaction I miss, there is one uncomfortable task I don’t, and there is something ambivalent that I won’t miss angsting about.
For a moment, I think about the sumptuous book design for Salome—is this lovely edition worked up for the people who Bunburyied their way out of a night at the theatre, avoided the blood and the passion as staged by Wilde? If so, Beardsley’s specimens replace people nicely.
In the frontispiece of the edition, Beardsley draws a caricature of Oscar Wilde’s face as the moon, staring with a disaffected look through some clouds and looking at the two ambiguous Adam and Eve type figures. This is no hatefuck, exactly. In this, as in all of his illustrations, Beardsley holds up Wilde’s head, a light impression of it, far from his chest, proudly and upside down.
So is castration funnier, or beheading? The appendages Beardsley scatters around the pages call it a draw. Maybe my students and I should have struggled through Wilde’s alienating words and Beardsley’s aloof images as a united front. Maybe we would have figured it out, or at very least we would have been disappointed, had a laugh, in the same room together.
For me, the days of distance are fearsome and funny—but I wish they’d be short as a suite of thirteen line-drawings or a one-act play.
Abby Walthausen's writing has appeared in The Public Domain Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Atlantic, Zocalo Public Square, Atlas Obscura, Common-place, Mutha, Extra Crispy, LARB, Electric Literature, and LitHub. Fictional work has been published by Gigantic, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Made in LA anthology, Santa Monica Review, Gulf Stream, and is forthcoming in Sycamore Review . She lives in Echo Park, Los Angeles where she guides a tour about twentieth-century printmaker Paul Landacre, and is at work on a novel, ST. CYR.